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Election could bring shake-up in FUESD board majority

Rick Monroe

Special to the Village News

With three incumbents each facing a challenger in the Nov. 8 election, there could be a majority of new trustees when the Fallbrook Union Elementary School District board meets for its organizational meeting on Dec. 12. Of course, the board would stay the same if incumbents Caron Lieber, Susan Liebes and JoAnn Lopez (appointed) are re-elected. Or it could be a mix of new and old, all depending on local voters.

Board members Suzanne Lundin (president) and Ricardo Favela were elected two years ago and serve until 2024.

The Village News reached out to all six candidates with a series of questions for this article. All six responded including challengers Diane Sebalj, grandparent and retired bookkeeper; Stacey McCrae, teacher; and Mary McBride, barber/cosmetologist. Sebalj responded with a candidate statement instead of answering the questions asked.

Sebalj is running against Lieber in Area 1; McCrae is opposing Liebes in Area 4, and McBride is challenging Lopez in Area 5. There is another candidate in Area 4, Krystal Lee, who will remain listed on the ballot, but has stated she has chosen to back out and is supporting McRae.

Voters will select board members who live in their respective geographic areas of the elementary district:

In Area 1, Lieber holds an MA in education from Concordia University, Irvine, and a BA in communication from USC. She describes herself as both an educator and businesswoman, currently a part-time community college instructor and manager of the Employee Training Institute for San Diego Community College District.

“My family and I have lived in Fallbrook for over 34 years,” Lieber said. “Both of my children attended Fallbrook schools from kindergarten through 12th grade and received an excellent education.”

Sebalj’s statement says,” I’m running for this position to be a voice for parents, an advocate for our children in our schools and a partner to our wonderful and dedicated teachers. As a grandmother of three, mother of two and the proud mother-in-law of a firefighter, I have been watching the tides change within our schools. The past two years have brought light to our school system, the curriculum being taught, and the need to have better collaboration between parents and our teachers.”

“Like many, I was frustrated with the lack of connection that current boards had with parents and the community that elected them,” the challenger added.

Lieber wrote that she is running, “Because I believe the success of our schools is closely tied to the participation of our community members. I feel at some point in life, when time permits, we should give back to the community.”

Sebalj stated, “Unlike my opponent, I am not FETA endorsed (by the Fallbrook Elementary Teachers Association) and I have chosen to not seek any endorsements or campaign funding. The school board should be elected and chosen by the community, not teacher associations or special groups.”

Lieber said her school board passion is transparency, fiscal responsibility, and supporting teachers and staff, “so all of us can focus on educating our children.”

“I feel we, as a board, could have many times in the past four years been more transparent,” Lieber said about what she would like to see done differently. “I also think we can do a much better job engaging our community. We need them to know our strengths and weaknesses and be our partner in working with our teachers and staff to provide an enriching learning community.

The incumbent said board members should be accountable to the parents, not the superintendent. “The superintendent is the only person the board hires and supervises,” Lieber explained. “She/he works for us.”

“Although the board is accountable to all parties, they work for the community, parents and students to ensure that campuses are safe, and a high-quality education is being provided to all students,” Sebali said.

Asked about instances where she provided leadership and in a decision that was contrary to the superintendent, Lieber replied, “I supported the community map that was designed for our redistricting four years ago by about 100 folks from the community. I was the only board member who voted against the map FUESD adopted. I also voted against the superintendent’s raises on all but one occasion in the past four years. Again, it was a 4/1 vote.”

Topics of other questions answered by Lieber (that Sebalj didn’t answer):

Transparency in curriculum: “We need to invite the community in to look at the curriculum and even allow the community to check out the textbooks and take them home.”

Budget cuts: “I feel as much money needs to go directly into the classroom as possible, every single penny possible. I have voted to ensure this happens every time it arises.”

Both candidates had comments about mask and vaccine mandates:

Lieber said, “We need to offer options to our family and their children so they can choose to not vaccinate if they don’t feel it’s in their best interest. Our district did this. We offered weekly testing or vaccination. No one was excluded if they did one or the other.

She added that she does not support Covid vaccine mandates.

Sebalj noted, ‘I do not support the mandates that have been pushed onto people, schools and families and do not ever want to see our schools close or operate the way that they did.”

Lieber said the district is doing quite a bit to make up for academic loss from when schools were closed. “First,” she said, “we have reduced our class sizes in all grade levels Pre-K to 8th grade for three years. We have added reading specialists and math TOSAS at each of the eight schools. We have afterschool programs to work with students that are not at grade level taught by their own teachers. We have counselors at each school. These are just a few of the things we have put in place.”

The incumbent wouldn’t comment about her thoughts on Superintendent Candace Singh deciding to leave the district after 11 years. However, she answered, “Yes, every single time” when asked if the board should consider at a regular public board meeting any raise or “perks” for the superintendent.

Asked what salary range a new superintendent should receive, she replied, “We are a small district, only 5,000 students and the salary should at some level reflect the size of the district, not just years of service. All salaries should have a cap. We don’t want to discourage longevity, but there are limits that are dictated by size. What FUESD has been paying is way too much.”

Sebalj’s final comments, “I would like to see the schools reflect the community that they represent. I will strive to be a fair partner to our educators to help them get back to the basics of simply teaching, while also listening and paying attention to the concerns of parents and the education needs within our community.”

In Area 4, Liebes has served the district since 2018 as an elected board member. “I have been deeply involved in the Fallbrook Union Elementary School District for the past 11 years, first as a parent of two students and a PTA volunteer,” she said. “I have lived in Fallbrook for 19 years and worked as fundraising director of REINS Therapeutic Horsemanship Program before becoming a mother.

McRae said, “I have worked hard all my life to obtain a strong foundation, including a doctorate in leadership. I am passionate about helping others, providing a high-quality education to students to send them out well-prepared into the world.”

Liebes’ reason for running: “I felt that this was another way I could serve the community. I also thought that it was important to have parents on the school board and, when elected in 2018, I was the only parent of a current student on the board. I ran because I felt this perspective was important to have represented, and this is true today more than ever.”

The challenger noted that she has been a teacher for over 26 years and has taught grades 4-11 in a variety of subjects. “I am very knowledgeable regarding educational policy and practice and want to help bring the educational system back to being at the high standard that students deserve,” McRae said. “I know that as a board member I can help lead the district down a very productive path toward high student achievement.”

Liebes said, “My top priorities are to continue the improvements we have achieved in FUESD over the past four years, including lower class sizes, academic achievement for all students, enrichment programs, social-emotional-physical health of students and staff, and family and community outreach.”

McRae said her passion was “Having transparency so that parents are fully aware of curriculum, where money is spent, and what goes on in the schools. Building a partnership with parents so they know, they, and their children are valued and that the board has an open-door policy in regard to working with and welcoming them on the journey.”

What Liebes said she would like to see differently is more family and community involvement in our schools, “so that our students benefit from the knowledge and talents of those in our community, and so the public has a better understanding of the programs and services our schools provide.

McRae said she would like to see members of the school board and district administration going into classrooms and seeing the great teaching taking place, as well as the issues that are also occurring. She added, “Accountability from board and superintendent.”

Liebes said her leadership led to expanded outdoor educational opportunities. “During my term we have added outdoor experiences so that every student in every grade level is able to visit an open space preserve and engage directly with nature,” she said. “I amplified parent voices who asked for more arts education. Fortunately, due to increased funding from the state and federal government, we are now able to offer arts enrichment at all grade levels.”

Asked how to make the curriculum more transparent, the incumbent said there are more ways for parents and community members to become involved in public education than ever before. “District priorities are determined by the Local Control and Accountability Plan,” Liebes said. “The LCAP is based directly on the input received from parents and community members gathered from surveys and during multiple meetings hosted at schools throughout the year.”

McRae said she would make sure parents were invited and welcomed to attend meetings to provide their input and help make curriculum appropriate and relevant to all students.

Asked if board members are accountable to the superintendent and administrators or the community and parents, their responses were similar:

“The Governing Board is responsible for hiring, evaluating, and directing the Superintendent. The board must also work as a team with one another and the superintendent to implement the priorities of the board. Trustees are accountable to voters,” Liebes said.

Asked about her thoughts on balancing the budget and keeping spending cuts away from the classroom, Liebes said, “One of the most important obligations of the governing board is fiscal responsibility. I am proud that every year I have served on the board we have ended the year in a positive fiscal position.”

On the same question, McRae replied, “I am extremely familiar with LCAP and how and where funds are spent. School funding should not be looked at as a giant pot of endless money to be freely spent without accountability. Balancing the budget to ensure that classrooms are properly funded is a top priority, and parent voices will be appreciated in regard to how funds are best spent for their children.”

The two had contrasting answers about their thoughts on “Social Emotional Learning” and/or “Equity” vs “Equality”:

“I am proud of our district’s focus on Social Emotional Learning,” Liebes said. “Programs like The Leader in Me and Character Strong are used in our schools to prepare students for life, college, and career by equipping them with leadership and interpersonal skills like courage, perseverance, honesty, respect, gratitude, kindness, responsibility, cooperation, creativity and empathy.”

“The groups that support these ‘philosophies’ are special interest groups who have their own self-serving agenda and their own priorities,” McRae said. “Parents send their children to school to learn reading/writing and the majority of teachers want to teach students to have critical thinking skills paired with hard work and determination, so that they become productive, contributing members of society.”

Questioned about data showing how school lockdowns negatively affected students as far as academics, suicide, depression, etc., the candidates were asked what they would do differently next time and how to make up for the academic losses:

Liebes replied, “FUESD was one of the first districts in the area to open after Covid closures. This was only possible due to careful planning by staff, extra health and safety precautions, and the cooperation of students and families. Since reopening, we have been able to provide additional academic intervention with certificated teachers, smaller class sizes, and summer and after school learning opportunities for all students in an effort to accelerate learning recovery. Results from the 2021 and 2022 California Assessment of Student Performance and Progress testing show improvements in English language arts and mathematics in every grade level in the district.”

McRae has a shorter answer: “This is a determination to be made by a parent for their child (children).” McRae had the same exact answer for the next question, on if she supported Covid vaccine mandates for children. Liebes didn’t answer that question or several others about the superintendent’s status and compensation.

“I am curious as to why the superintendent is leaving at the same time that three incumbents are up for re-election and face three very strong challengers,” McRae said.

She also said there should be full disclosure and input from the public about any time the board considers a pay increase or other benefits.

McRae said the salary of a superintendent should not exceed twice what the top paid teacher makes in the district. “Any additional funds for car, phone, health insurance should be disclosed with an explanation of rationale,” she added.

In Area 5, Lopez was appointed to the board in 2020 to fill the remainder of former board member Patty De Jong’s term. Lopez said she is a retired educator with over 30 years of experience and knowledge. “I have worked at the K-8, high school, community college and university level,” she said. “I hold a valid teaching credential as well as an administrator credential.”

She moved to Fallbrook from Oceanside with her husband in 2018. This is her first political office, but she has been a member of many non-profit organizations including Rally for Children, Vista Education Foundation, Bottom Shelf Bookstore, California Parks and Recreation and the Alzheimer’s Society.

McBride wrote, “I am a Latina mom of four and grandmother of 10. I have one associate degree in child development and another in Spanish studies. I’ve worked as a preschool teacher, a Spanish teacher and a teacher’s aide. My life values consist of my faith, family, and country in just that order. I have no prior political experience, but I care very much about my community.”

Asked why she was running, Lopez said, “I wanted to stay connected to the world of education and this was a great opportunity to bring my education experience and knowledge to Fallbrook. I have enjoyed my time on the board and believe I have made a difference.”

To the same question, McBride said, “I am currently a barber on the Camp Pendleton base, working with our brave enlisted men and women who serve our country. My work gives me the opportunity to speak with many people, and one thing is very clear to me: We all want the same things. We want a wholesome environment for our children. We want a promising future filled with hope for them.’

Asked about her passion on the board, Lopez said, “I am passionate about so many things. First and foremost I love education. I think communication is key to any position. I believe that fiscal responsibility is essential to a great operating district. I want a strong curriculum that will prepare our students for the world. I want to see our teachers supported in the classroom so that great learning takes place. We cannot operate without a strong classified staff and I support making their job easier. I love to visit schools and see what is happening. It is so exciting to see children interact with one another and their teachers in a safe and secure learning environment.”

McBride’s passion: “My desire to be a part of the school board is due to strong convictions that I have about children. It is not ego-driven. I see a problem and think I can help. I’d like to see more transparency. I don’t agree that the schools should be teaching young children very graphic sex education. This sensitive topic and discussions of gender identity are primarily the role of the parents. Children at very young ages must have their innocence protected, rather than exposing them to controversial cultural topics. We must always keep in mind that our schools are funded by our community and serve the community. I believe the curricula should be transparent so that parents clearly understand what the schools are presenting to their children.”

About what she would like to see done differently, Lopez said, “We need to build a stronger communication system with our parents and community. We need their input to make FUESD the best that it can be. I would like more opportunities to visit schools and classrooms without disrupting the day to day teaching of our students.”

Lopez was asked what she would like to accomplish. Her response: “Every child should be at grade level or above relative to state standards in order to give the children a chance to reach their full potential. The foundation of their education is built in elementary school. These are formative years. “

The challenger added, “Fiscal responsibility is vital. How is the money being allocated and spent? This is an essential task of a governing board. As such, one has to have a commitment to the children, the parents, the teachers, the staff, and the school as a whole.”

Both candidates were asked if they believed the board members are accountable to the superintendent and administration or community and parents?

Lopez: I believe I am accountable to both, as well as the entire FUESD staff and students. My role is to ensure that our district runs smoothly, has a sound fiscal base, and to ensure our children have an opportunity to learn. As a board member, I am accountable to have the best people in place, in all positions, to give our students the best chance to perform at grade level. We need to provide continued intervention for all students to meet their individual needs. I am accountable to every parent in our community to provide a safe and nurturing school environment.”

McBride: “An excellent question because there is a fine line there. We want to be considerate of the opinions of the teachers, administrators, etc., but ultimately the board is accountable to the community. Diplomacy is important – we don’t want an adversarial relationship to develop with the schools, but there are some things that are non-negotiable with me. Transparency, keeping curriculum within the values of the community, and very high standards in education.”

Asked for two instances where she provided leadership in a decision that was contrary to the superintendent, Lopez replied, “I have only been on the board for two years and much of that was during Covid. Many, if not most, of our decisions were related to student and staff safety. Fallbrook was recognized countywide for our response to Covid and for keeping schools open. I do not recall any instances where we, as a board, did not provide appropriate leadership.”

Questioned about making curriculum more transparent, Lopez said, “We must include teachers and parents in the development and implementation of our curriculum. We just rolled out our new ELA curriculum and are working on our new math curriculum. In both instances, we had input from a variety of school partners. This is crucial for transparency. We follow the approved standards for science and social studies and make informed decisions on implementation. We need our parent support groups (PTA, ELAC, etc.) to be part of the review process. Inviting parents back into the classroom also allows everyone to know how and what our students are learning.”

McBride’s response: “Back to School night provides an excellent opportunity for teachers to share their syllabus and materials for the year. In areas where curriculum is at all controversial, I believe that parents should be able to view the materials and have input into whether or not it is adopted by the school.”

Asked how to balance the budget and keep spending cuts away from the classroom, Lopez said, “Fiscal responsibility is one of the most important roles for a school board member. FUESD has an incredible fiscal services department with leadership that is always looking out for what is best for the student. Every dollar allocated has the student in mind, from transportation and nutrition to classroom resources and safety supplies. It is always a daunting task to balance the budget but I believe that the current board has addressed this appropriately.”

Regarding “Social Emotional Learning” and/or “Equity” vs “Equality,” Lopez said, “I strongly support Social Emotional Learning. The components of SEL provide students with the tools to be successful beyond math, ELA, science, and social studies. Self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationship skills, and responsible decision-making are core competencies that our students must master, they are vital for success in school, work and lifelong endeavors. SEL provides an opportunity for all school partners to be involved in student development. SEL focuses on a set of life skills that we all need to understand ourselves and communicate with one another. I am also a strong believer in the Leader in Me programs which we have in all of our schools to support SEL.”

Asked about handling future mask and experimental vaccine mandates, Lopez said: “As public servants, we must follow the CDC guidelines. Though there has been a rise in myocarditis cases, the CDC continues to recommend COVID-19 vaccination. I am patiently waiting for more data in this area.”

McBride commented: “I realize that, to the extent that they are under state or county requirements, schools must follow certain guidelines. I believe, however, we must use any latitude we have to listen to parents’ concerns and adopt policies that are best for children. For most children, there is absolutely no justification in requiring Covid vaccines. They are simply not a group that is high risk. Similarly, the data on face masks has shown this to be an ineffective strategy in containing the virus. We have been in the throes of a scary time for our nation. There was great uncertainty, but let’s learn from our mistakes and, moving forward, let’s do what’s best for the children. School days are best spent in a school.”

Lopez said, “I believe that FUESD handled the school closures extremely well. We were one of the first school districts to reopen and kept our students out of the classroom for the least amount of time. No school district was prepared for the pandemic, but FUESD had some very knowledgeable people in place to handle the crisis. We have many more support systems in place today to handle this kind of interruption in the school process.”

This is the first time voters in Areas 1, 4 and 5 have selected board candidates from their respective geographic zones. Not all the candidate responses were printed due to space limitations.


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